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Wildfire safety campaign offers home hardening strategies, evacuation prep

Daily Tidings / Jamie LuschThe Ashland Parks and Recreation Department burns a brush pile Wednesday during a control burn at Riverwalk Park.

Ashland Fire and Rescue and the city’s Wildfire Safety Commission will launch a four-month educational campaign the first week of April that is heavily influenced by last September’s fire season.

“We knew this was an opportunity to engage with a captive audience on what residents need to be doing to prepare for fire this season,” said Katie Gibble, Fire Adapted Communities coordinator.

Wildfire safety starts with the physical home, she said. The campaign begins with a focus on home hardening strategies in April and progresses outward, from firewise landscaping to evacuation planning and home air quality preservation during prolonged smoke events.

For landscaping, fire experts recommend keeping vegetation “lean, clean and green” within 30 feet of the home, preventing flames from encroaching on residential property, she said.

The month of June will focus on evacuation preparedness, such as understanding evacuation levels, practicing a route out of town and creating a basic evacuation kit suited for sheltering away from home in the days and weeks following a devastating fire.

“[The campaign] focuses around a lot of outreach with the local networks that can help spread the word to individuals in the community,” Gibble said. “There’s only a handful of us, but for each hub that we create by reaching out, we’re getting folks out to everyone in the community.”

A spring season of wildfire-focused activities will include placement of 20 green debris bins around Ashland neighborhoods, each measuring 25 cubic yards, Gibble said. In February, AFR received grant funding through the Oregon Department of Forestry to purchase the bins as part of an effort to reduce fuels and create defensible space in residential areas.

Neighborhoods and individuals can apply to have a bin placed in their area. Each applicant should identify flammable debris in their area and connect with other neighbors about their debris removal priorities, Gibble said. The top 20 applicants can schedule bin placement between mid-April and mid-May.

Each bin will feature images of top-priority flammable vegetation such as Mugo pine, arborvitae and juniper, so residents know what they should remove from their landscapes first, Gibble said.

From May through July, a three-part webinar series will feature recorded interviews with residents who evacuated during the Almeda fire Sept. 8 and who navigated the smoke that followed in their homes and businesses, Gibble said.

The city has commissioned an evacuation study, intended to identify gaps in citywide evacuation planning and resident educational material. The city is working interdepartmentally to prioritize fuels reduction on city lands and finish pile burning this spring, Gibble said.

Gibble speculated fire season could come early, in a year defined by unprecedented drought and near-dry reservoirs. Yet with the same fire staff capacity on hand as last year, Gibble said community engagement offers some security.

“There’s confidence in that increased outreach and education,” Gibble said. “On top of that, Ashlanders — everyone throughout the Rogue Valley — is more conscious of the fact that fires can really move through the community, so there’s a lot more interest and demand for the fire department’s time, particularly mine, to help residents prepare for fire.”

Residents interested in accessing wildfire safety campaign information can visit fireadaptedashland.org/wildfireprep.

The Wildfire Safety Commission recently developed a volunteer-based Wildfire Risk Assessment Program (WRAP) in collaboration with Oregon State University Extension and regional partners — the first known program of its kind in the country, said Wildfire Safety Commissioner Kent Romney.

WRAP will train volunteers to conduct one-on-one residential wildfire risk assessments — currently performed by Gibble alone in Ashland. The program could increase annual assessments completed within the city tenfold, she said.

“The city is working really hard to reduce wildfire risk, but ultimately you as an individual homeowner need to take responsibility for the wildfire risk on your own property,” Gibble said. “If the Almeda fire showed us anything, it’s that everyone has work to do.”

Volunteer training involves six weeks of online course work, a background check, field testing and 100 hours per year of assessment service. Volunteer instructors will include Rogue Valley fire experts and national partners. Gibble said she hopes the format offers a framework for other communities to use.

High winds last September showed that fire embers travel substantial distances, and the latest research says 90% of structures lost in fires start directly from embers, Romney said, calling on residents to turn their attention to their own yards and structures to reduce community-wide risk.

The Wildfire Safety Commission unanimously agreed that WRAP was the way to go, Romney said — assessors will provide advice for property owners to improve wildfire risk in their space.

“In order to help with that capacity of being able to assess all the properties, the commission came up with the idea of creating a group of citizen volunteers who are highly trained and know how to conduct the assessments, so they can add to the staff capacity for the fire department,” Romney said.

The commission is constructing the program from scratch, prioritizing home hardening and safe landscaping following a “wake-up call” season of urban wildfire last fall, he said.

People interested in volunteering with WRAP can visit ashland.or.us/wrap for more information. The program is scheduled to start in May.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.